Kids these days have no idea how good they’ve got it. You definitely know what I’m talking about if you’re an American above the age of 44. That’s because you still bear the scar from the smallpox vaccination you received on your arm decades ago. You were alive when a global vaccination campaign conducted by the WHO managed to eradicate smallpox in the United States by 1972, and globally by 1980. Because of that, your kids got to grow up in a world where they would never have to worry about dying from smallpox.
Or at least that’s what we used to think. After 9/11 the public became increasingly aware of the fact that smallpox wasn’t completely eradicated. The United States maintained samples of the virus for research purposes, and the Soviets weaponized the virus.
To this day the Russian government still maintains a stockpile of the weaponized virus, and for years the West has worried that some of these samples may have fallen into the hands of terrorists after the Soviet Union collapsed. Fortunately that threat seems unfounded now, since it’s been 25 years since the Soviet Union dissolved, and no attacks involving smallpox have occurred.
However, that isn’t the only way that smallpox could rear its ugly head again. It turns out that mother nature may be holding onto her own stockpile of the virus.
Earlier this month, an anthrax outbreak occurred in Russia’s far north, outside the town of Salekhard. More than 2,300 reindeer were killed, and dozens of nomadic herders were hospitalized. At first the incident was a complete mystery, since anthrax hadn’t been seen in that region since the 1940’s. Eventually though, the authorities figured out what the source of the outbreak was.
Over the past month, the region has seen temperatures that reached 95 degrees Fahrenheit, which is unheard of for a community that resides above the Arctic Circle. It turns out that melting permafrost released anthrax spores from a dead animal that had been frozen for decades. Since anthrax can survive hundreds of years in frozen conditions, it had no problem infecting animals and humans once the carcass thawed.
Which has left some scientists wondering if smallpox could be thawed out of the permafrost in the near future.
Anthrax spores are already ‘on the loose” on the Yamal peninsula, according to one scientist, and this should act as a warning of the real risk of a return of eradicated smallpox from melting permafrost which allows the erosion of river banks at sites where victims were buried, said another.
‘Back in the 1890s, there occurred a major epidemic of smallpox,’ said Boris Kershengolts, deputy director for research at the Institute for Biological Problems of Cryolithozone, of the Siberian Branch of the Academy of Sciences.
‘There was a town where up to 40% of the population died. Naturally, the bodies were buried under the upper layer of permafrost soil, on the bank of the Kolyma River. Now, a little more than 100 years later, Kolyma’s floodwaters have started eroding the banks.’
Experts from the Novosibirsk-based Virology and Biotechnology Centre had conducted research in the area, said Sergey Netesov, chief of the bionanotechnology, microbiology and virology laboratory at the natural sciences department of Novosibirsk State University.
The corpses they studied bore sores that looked like those smallpox might cause, he told an intriguing and troubling TASS video conference involving multi-disciplinary experts on the implications of the outbreak of anthrax on the Yamal peninsula in northern Siberia.
While the virus itself was not found, some fragments of its DNA were noted. ‘This type of research should go on,’ he urged. ‘Examining deeper burials might help clear up the situation.’
Make no mistake, it’s been proven that smallpox can survive being frozen, so it seems likely that melting permafrost could release the virus in the near future. Unfortunately, very few people in the modern world would have any immunity to this virus. Even people who were vaccinated in the 60’s and 70’s wouldn’t be safe, since the vaccine only provides immunity for several years. Perhaps kids these days don’t have it so good after all.